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Review: “Altered Carbon,” by Richard K. Morgan

Title: Altered Carbon
Author: Richard K. Morgan
Series: Takeshi Kovacs #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: Del Rey, 2003

This is probably the most interesting idea for a science fiction story that I’ve encountered in quite a while, and if you can handle all the grimy, squalid detail of this cyberpunk masterpiece, I heartily recommend it. On the other hand, this is pretty solidly in the noir category, so if the staples of that genre are going to put you off, maybe give this one a miss. And yes, I did go find a copy of this as a result of seeing trailers for the Netflix series. I’d never heard of it before! Not sure how that happened, but I’ve rectified it now.

By the twenty-fifth century, mankind has conquered death. Everyone on Earth is implanted with a cortical stack, a small disk at the base of your skull that stores everything that makes you…well, you. Your memories. Your consciousness. You. You die, they download your stack and stick you in a new “sleeve” or body…if you can afford it. Most can, at least once, but aging takes a toll. At the end of the day, most people refrain from more than a couple lifetimes. There are, of course, exceptions. The truly rich can afford to clone themselves and keep a small stock on hand for emergencies, complete with a period off-site stack backup in case of catastrophe. These fortunate few are referred to as Methuselahs or “Meths” by the masses, after the biblical figure who lived nine hundred and sixty-nine years, and most view them as slightly inhuman. To be sure, watching a few centuries of history march by does give most of them a slightly different take on the world and society – they tend to disregard the “little people” even more than the rich and powerful here in the twenty-first.  Of course, this societal revolution has impacted literally every element of the world. Travel? Beam yourself across the stars instantly and have them sleeve you in a new body halfway across the galaxy. Or across the globe, if you’re really impatient. Prison? Nope. Criminals are simply stuck on the shelf for the length of their sentence, their bodies sold off as bargain sleeves unless a loved one can pay to keep it mortgaged. Your sentence is over, you get resleeved into whatever is available. You went in as a twenty-year-old black man? You might come out a middle-aged white guy, or vice versa. Murder isn’t as much a thing, since “you” are your stack, not your body, and thus far more durable. Cases of “real death” do occur, but mostly it’s “organic damage” and the victim can be resleeved in time to testify about their own attempted murder.

This is the world of Takeshi Kovacs. Once a crack UN Envoy, specially trained to be sent all over human space to fight minor wars, now Kovacs is a mercenary and a criminal for hire on the fringes of the Protectorate. After dying in a hail of gunfire on Harlan’s World, Kovacs understandably expects to be on ice for a century or two. Instead, he finds himself resleeved on Earth. It seems a Meth, Laurens Bancroft, blew his own brains out a couple weeks ago…or at least that’s what the police report says. Bancroft, now in a new sleeve, doesn’t believe it. He doesn’t remember the night in question, but he’s pretty sure he wouldn’t try to kill himself, and if he did want to kill himself, he’d have done it right so he couldn’t be resleeved. If Kovacs manages to figure out who actually had Bancroft killed, he’s a free man in a designer sleeve on whatever world in the Protectorate he desires. If he fails…well, that’s not a good idea. Kovacs might be inclined to take the police at their word – every single piece of evidence points to Bancroft vaporizing his own head – if not for their stubborn resentment of his presence. Not to mention the hitman who knows his name and (new) face on a world he’s never visited in his life. Someone doesn’t want Kovacs to find out the truth, which means that there’s truth to find. Tipping him off to that fact was their first mistake. Pissing him off was their second. They may not get a third….

As I said before, this book was superbly executed. The worldbuilding is spot-on, and I can’t think of a single arena where Morgan didn’t think through the implications of the tech he was unleashing on his fictional world. There are throwaway lines left and right that hint at a larger world and history at play here, and I want to explore them all! I wasn’t a huge fan of the religious subtext, though. Morgan is pretty anti-religion here, especially Catholicism. The Catholic church has decided that your soul cannot be separated from your body, and so resleeving yourself is forbidden. And since there’s no special provision for an alternative punishment, Catholics that are sentenced to any time in storage – even a week – are as good as dead. Reasonable bit of extrapolation there, given real-world trends in Catholic doctrine, but Morgan (through Kovacs) is really vitriolic on the subject. It’s also a huge plot point, as Catholics make perfect targets – they can’t be resleeved to testify at trial, so you’re likely to get away with whatever crime you commit against them. Thus, there are several brothels that unofficially only hire Catholic girls in case they have to make them disappear. (No word on how prostitution can be made to square with their beliefs.) Protestants aren’t mentioned, though I think that debate within my branch of the church would grow rather heated as well. Muslims don’t come off well either, especially in Kovacs’ flashbacks to the fighting on an Islamic world, Sharya.

CONTENT: Strong R-rated profanity throughout. Graphic violence, including virtual torture where a character is downloaded into a mainframe, in a simulated female sleeve, and repeatedly raped, beaten, and mutilated to death, only to have the system reset. This isn’t described in great detail, but is pretty disturbing nevertheless. Graphic sexual content, including the torture scene described above. Some pretty heavy drug and alcohol use – fictional drugs, not describing the effects of anything that actually exists (to my knowledge), but still. Bottom line: not for kids or the faint of heart.

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Review: “The Ice Dragon,” by George R.R. Martin

Title: The Ice Dragon
Author: George R.R. Martin
Series: A Song of Ice & Fire….kind of.
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: TOR, 2014 (originally 1980)

The Ice Dragon was originally published in 1980 as a short story and later reworked into a short novella for younger readers. Does it tie into Martin’s magnum opus, A Song of Ice and Fire (better known to some by the title of the first book and HBO series, A Game of Thrones)? That depends on who you ask. The book jacket says yes, in an obvious attempt to boost sales. Martin says no, and that ASoIaF wasn’t even a thing yet when this was written.  If you read it, you can easily tell that this is at best tangentially connected to Martin’s more famous work–there are thematic connections, but it bears little resemblance to any of the recorded history of Westeros and Essos, nor to most of the mythology mentioned therein. Could it take place in the pre-history of Valyria? Sure. It could describe the early days of that empire, forgotten by the time of ASoIaF, but there is little to suggest that beyond the thematic connections and, obviously, the dragons. Even the titular ice dragon is different from what audiences reportedly saw last season on the show. So officially, it’s not a part of the ASoIaF canon, but if you want to make it part of your headcanon, go ahead. Be my guest.

Adara is a winter child, born during the deepest freeze anyone can remember, and is always happiest when the land is in winter’s icy grip. She’s a cold child, both physically and emotionally, able to handle the small ice lizards that come during the winter without melting them as her playmates are wont to accidentally do. But what no one else knows is that Adara also has a dragon. Not the smallish, green fire dragons that the Empire’s men ride into battle, no–those terrify young Adara. Adara’s dragon is the legendary ice dragon feared by her entire village. It’s been seen in the sky each year since she was four, and each year the winter comes earlier, freezes harder, and lasts longer. Adara loves her dragon, loves riding it through the sky, the frigid wind in her face. But now it is summer, and her dragon is nowhere to be seen. Now it is summer, and the war in the north is not going well for the Empire. Imperial Dragonriders have been retreating in the face of their enemies, but Adara’s father refuses to leave their farm….until enemy Dragonriders show up and capture Adara’s family. Now only Adara is left to defend her home….but how can she do that in the middle of summer?

This is a quick read, and surprisingly nuanced for a children’s book. Martin weaves a complex tale of love and sacrifice that is fit for children, yet appeals to adults as well. And to top it off, Luis Royo’s artwork is superb. Most of it is uncolored line art, but even that is beautiful. See below for the full version of the cover art. This feels like the kind of story Old Nan would tell to the young Stark children at Winterfell, yet as I mentioned above the history described therein is not consistent with Westeros. Maybe early Valyria, if they ever faced an enemy that also rode dragons…

CONTENT: No profanity or sexual content whatsoever. Some violence, not gory, but neither is it sugarcoated. When dragons battle, people burn.

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Review: “The Name of the Wind,” by Patrick Rothfuss

Title: The Name of the Wind
Author: Patrick Rothfuss
Series: The Kingkiller Chronicle #1
Rating: *****
Publisher/Copyright: DAW, 2008

Somewhere, in a small village in the middle of a land burning with the fires of revolution, there is an inn. The innkeeper is a massive man, with hair red as flame, but most of the time he seems remarkably unremarkable. A relative newcomer to this tiny village, an outsider, but otherwise not worth particular notice. Except…every so often, when he forgets himself or thinks no one is watching, his eyes light with an inner fire that seems it could set the world ablaze. The name he gives his new neighbors is Kote, but he was born Kvothe, one of the Edema Ruh, and that name is spoken in whispers across the land. Kvothe the Bloodless, they say. Slayer of dragons. Musician without compare. Kingkiller. Come listen in, as Kvothe tells the long and twisting tale of his life and adventures….

Beautiful prose, an interesting world, and a complicated hero combine to make this an excellent read. It’s massive and arguably a bit rambling, but well worth the effort. Rothfuss weaves a web where even the smallest detail could have dire implications for later events, as Kvothe is recalling things with the 20/20 vision granted by hindsight and the narrative flair of his Ruh heritage. There are secrets here, and mysteries, but you’ll have to work for most of them. Some would argue that Kvothe, the young man of the main tale, is perhaps a bit too precocious for belief, but this offers an interesting contrast to the broken failure of a man he sees himself as in the frame tale. I very much look forward to continuing this series and finding out how that change was affected, even as I know that the third book is notoriously overdue…

CONTENT: Probably some R-rated language, but I honestly don’t remember any. PG-13, for sure. Definitely some violence, ranging from the fairly dark and a bit disturbing to harmless mischief. Some sexual innuendo, but nothing explicit yet. Later books? Not sure. Mild fictional drug content. There’s definitely magic and talk of demons, but it’s not occultic. The magic is part of the fabric of creation, and the demons are superstitious interpretations of monsters from the land of the Fae…which doesn’t do much to comfort those slain by them, to be sure.

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Mini-Review: “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman

Title: The Magicians
Author: Lev Grossman
Series: The Magicians #1
Rating: **
Publisher/Copyright: Viking, 2009

Premise: Quentin Coldwater is a brilliant but bored high school senior, dissatisfied with the world he sees around him and longing for something to give life meaning. School offers meager challenges, the girl he crushes on is instead attached to his best “friend,” and his only real escape is the “Fillory and Further” series of children’s novels. Then, on the day he was to interview for admission to Princeton, he finds himself inadvertently competing for a place at Brakebills College of Magical Pedagogy, the only magical university in North America. Magic is real, you can study it, and those Fillory novels? True stories, as told to and distorted by their pedophilic, alcoholic author by his neighbor children. Soon Quentin has new friends and a new place to belong. Surely magic will make him happy….right? Huh. Nope. Alcohol, sex, drugs? Drat. Well, maybe if we found our way into Fillory….

Pro: A realistically-imagined exploration of what it would be like to actually have magical abilities, to do whatever you could possibly want with nearly no restrictions. There’s no Voldemort threatening the world to struggle against, no higher purpose to serve. This ain’t no fairy tale, folks. This is life.

Con: Life sucks. The story is very bleak, as the protagonists search for meaning in all the wrong places. I’d like to believe I’d not turn out as jaded as Quentin, but I see a lot of my own potential weaknesses in his character. I identified with him (usually – there were times he took it too far) but really didn’t much like him. Other characters too, to varying degrees.

Pro/Con: The world presented here is interesting, but it is lacking the sense of fun that usually comes with reading genre fiction. With good reason – “The Magicians” uses all the genre tropes, but it’s LITERATURE, thank you very much. Look how bleak it is! (I’m on record as being disdainful of all literary pretension, even preferring genre to the hoity-toity capital-L-Literature, but whatever floats your boat.) In other words, I appreciate its existence without being overly fond of the actual product.

TL,DR: Interesting but bleak, Harry Potter and Narnia for an adult, jaded audience who finds life meaningless and wants their fictional characters to inhabit that same headspace. Will I read the rest of the trilogy? Probably. After I read some Star Wars, Jim Butcher, and S.M. Stirling to clear my palate.

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Review: “Wanted” by Mark Millar & J.G. Jones

Title: Wanted
Writer: Mark Millar
Artist: J.G. Jones & Dick Giordano (Flashback sequences in issue #6)
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Image Comics, 2007

Every once in a while you run across a book like Wanted. Well written, excellent art, genius premise, a smart story and interesting characters….and a stated goal of offending every sensibility you have. In that, Wanted certainly succeeds. Am I recommending you go read it? That depends on who you are and how easy you are to offend. This one’s not for everyone. It’s been billed “Watchmen for super-villains,” if that tells you anything.

Wesley Gibson is the ultimate loser. His girlfriend is cheating on him with his supposed-best friend, he has a dead-end job with a boss who chews him out regularly, he’s a hypochondriac, and to top it all off he seems to be a clone of Eminem. But all that changes when a woman named Fox upends his life. It seems that Wesley’s father was the Killer, one of a cabal of super-villains who have secretly run the world since 1986. Now the Killer is dead, and Wesley stands to inherit not only his worldly possessions but also his place in The Fraternity. Before you know it, Wesley is a whole new person with a whole new set of…well, maybe not friends. Associates might be a better word. Tensions are rising within the Fraternity. After years of peacefully keeping the world subjugated, certain members are getting tired of living behind the scenes. Civil War seems eminent, and there’s no better time to be the Killer….

Imagine suddenly having the ability to do whatever you wanted, with absolutely no consequences. Blow away a restaurant full of people? Police have no suspects. Make your “friend” who’s cheating with your girlfriend disappear? Doesn’t even make the news. Whatever your fancy, it will be covered up. How? Because the super-villains are ruling the world. Do you remember the Heroes? No, of course you don’t. They’ve been relegated to cheesy TV shows and comic books. They never really existed. Or at least, that’s the story now. Turns out that in 1986 all the super-villains – ALL of them – teamed up and took down the mighty Heroes, rewriting reality so that they never even existed. A certain pair of caped crusaders now think they just played those characters on TV, and the world’s greatest hero spends his days in a wheelchair staring out the window at a world that has forgotten him, wondering just what he’s trying to remember. The gang’s all here, given a gritty update and with their names changed to protect the author from lawsuits. Some of them are recognizable, others less so. Remember Bizarro? The failed clone of Superman that turns everything opposite? He’s been translated into [REDACTED]*, a “Down’s Syndrome copy of the world’s greatest hero.” Clayface? Try [REDACTED]*, a creature made up from the feces of the world’s six-hundred and sixty-six most evil beings that have somehow become sentient. There’s more in the same vein. Fox is clearly Catwoman stuck in Halle Berry’s body. (No, I have no idea whether that’s a coincidence. The comic was released first, but I don’t know how far back the casting for Catwoman was announced.) Mister Rictus is a darker take on the Joker, a former priest who died for a few moments only to find that there’s nothing waiting on the other side. Now? Now he does whatever he wants, eats what(or who)ever he wants, fornicates with whatever he wants. Currently? He wants to take America from his old rival Professor Solomon Seltzer….

The content here is over the top offensive. There’s the obvious profanity, sexual content and gore, but there’s also adapting DC’s Bizarro to have Down’s Syndrome (and then making fun of him), or putting not-Superman in a wheelchair….just like the guy that used to play him in the movies. At the same time, the premise is genius. The characters are all incredibly well executed. The plot is a purposeful inversion of Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey” theme. This is an incredible piece of work….except for how offensive it is. So, should you read it? I’ll let you decide.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity throughout. Explicit sexual content, including references to rape and bestiality. Strong, gory violence. Not for children!

*I keep this blog PG, even when the works I’m reviewing definitely aren’t. Redacted names contain profanity.

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Review: “The Shards Of Heaven” by Michael Livingston

Title: The Shards Of Heaven
Author: Michael Livingston
Series: The Shards Of Heaven Vol. I
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Tor, 2015

I enjoy books that take history and turn it on its head, showing the secret machinations that are happening behind the scenes. This was one of those books.

Julius Caesar is dead, assassinated just before his finest moment, and now the civilized world is ripped in two. Tensions run high between Rome and Alexandria, with the fate of an Empire hanging in the balance. In Egypt, Antony has aligned himself with Cleopatra and her son Caesarion, the blood-heir of Julius Caesar. In Rome, Caesar’s adopted son Octavian gathers his forces for a war that seems inevitable. Meanwhile, the Numidian prince Juba scours the Earth for an object of power that will allow him to avenge himself on Rome for the subjugation of his people. What he finds could bring the world to its knees….

The Shards of Heaven is the first in a new series that takes the real-life history of the birth of the Roman Empire and infuses it with a healthy dose of historical fantasy behind the scenes for a fast-paced romp full of engaging characters. If you know your history, then you know certain characters are doomed from the start, but that doesn’t stop you from rooting for them. The central conceit here is that there are several artifacts that have shaped history through the ages, giving rise to myth and legend, always half-remembered versions of the truth. Poseidon’s trident/Moses’ staff, Zeus’ Aegis…and the Ark of the Covenant, the most powerful Shard of Heaven in existence. Some things were not meant for the hands of man….

CONTENT: Some strong violence. Moderate sexual innuendo, nothing too explicit. I don’t recall any profanity (though at this point its been several weeks since I finished it due to scheduling snafus), but there may have been a bit. Definitely some supernatural elements going on, kinda-sorta opposed to the traditional Judeo-Christian worldview, but also not really. To explain would court spoilers….

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Review: “Darkstorm” by M.L. Spencer

Title: Darkstorm
Author: M.L. Spencer
Series: The Rhenwars Saga Vol. I
Rating: ****
Publisher/Copyright: Stoneguard Publications, 2016

Thought I had posted this already. I received a copy of this in exchange for a review. Now I can’t find any information on it to link to, be it Amazon or Goodreads, which is a bit frustrating for purposes of this blog. Oh well…..

Eons ago, the nation of Caladorn and the kingdoms of the Rhen existed in harmony. Those days are long past. Though they still share a root philosophy, at least so far as the nature of magic is concerned, relations between Bryn Calazar and Aerysius are far from friendly. Braden Reis is a Master of the Lyceum, sent to Aerysius as an ambassador in a last-ditch attempt to prevent war . . . but all is not as it seems. When an Acolyte from Aerysius’ Hall of Watchers stumbles upon an unholy conspiracy involving the demonic power of Xerys, Prince of Chaos, Braden finds himself embroiled in a struggle against the most powerful members of both Colleges of Magic for the future of his entire world. If he fails, Chaos will reign supreme. If he succeeds, it may mean the end of the world as he knows it.

The world presented in Darkstorm is fascinating, to say the least. I initially feared Caladorn would prove the stereotypical fantasy land where women are forced to rely on men to protect them, but this wasn’t quite accurate—that only proves necessary if the woman in question has little status. There are many powerful women in Caladorn, though a good deal of their status and prestige seems to be founded in how alluring they are able to make themselves. Aerysius seems to be a bit more founded on equality, but as we spend a comparatively short time there I cannot say for certain. Fantasy tropes pop up left and right, but usually cast in a new light or employed in interesting combinations that dampen any potential annoyance.

The characters shown here are without fail three-dimensional and complex. One seems inconsistent at times, but that turns out to be intentional. Braden Reis is a man of convictions, with blood on his hands despite (or because of) his strong moral compass. Braden’s lover, Master Sephana Clemley, holds a similarly steady morality despite serving a rival nation. Faced with evidence of corruption infecting both their orders, Braden and Sephana barely hesitate before seeking the truth. Also caught up in events is Sephana’s apprentice, Merris Bryar, whose nosiness tips the Masters off to the conspiracy in their midst, and Braden’s wine-sotted brother Quinlan. Even the antagonists prove complicated, and their motivations understandable even as we deplore their methods. We aren’t even entirely sure they’re wrong, in most cases.

Bottom line, this was an amazingly entertaining read. I do have some issues with the ending, but I cannot discuss them without courting spoilers, and so will leave off with merely that vague caveat. I look forward to seeing more in this trilogy when the time comes.

CONTENT: R-rated profanity. Strong violence. Strong sexual content. Magic, though mostly fantasy-based as opposed to occultic.

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